- Jeb Wallace-brodeur
Name: Geoff Brumbaugh
Job: owner, Common Ground Audio
Near his preamplifier, tuner and equalizer, not far from his speakers and plasma television, Geoff Brumbaugh keeps one of his Betamax players. It still works.
"I keep a couple running for a number of reasons," the audio repairman deadpanned in the living room of his Montpelier home. Those reasons — besides watching occasional Betamax videos and burning them to DVDs — he left to be inferred. After four decades of repairing audio and video equipment, ranging from turntables to recording tools that few millennial audiophiles would even recognize, Brumbaugh clearly has a passion for keeping alive the machines that most media consumers discard.
Brumbaugh, 58, has worked with electronics since his teens. He has run his repair shop, Common Ground Audio, from his home for most of its 35 years of existence. He illustrated his dedication to maintaining, instead of upgrading, by showing off the first record player he bought: a Philips turntable he's kept running since 1973.
As the local classical station played in his home office, where audio-testing equipment is stacked nearly to the ceiling, Brumbaugh spoke with Seven Days about his repair process.
SEVEN DAYS: How have you seen trends in music listening and equipment unfold?
GEOFF BRUMBAUGH: I noticed that young people were uncovering the equipment that their parents, or maybe grandparents, had stashed in the closet. I've often wondered what brought on what first — was it the music, the LPs, people finding the music that you can't get on CD, or was it that they were discovering this cool equipment, something that spins a record [where] you can actually see the grooves? Then, finding that there's a whole resource of vintage music, stuff that will never be issued on CD ... and then things just sort of snowballed. Now, at least three quarters of my turntable clients are young people, under 25. Now that they're starting to press records again, that's really fueled the interest in vinyl. I worked on this stuff when it was new; I'm glad people appreciate it again.
SD: We live in a culture of both attachment to things and planned and perceived obsolescence. How do those clashing mentalities affect your business?
GB: I get really upset about this whole issue — the new technology, and how the equipment is made. When you can buy a DVD player for $25, and it breaks, nobody is going to spend $50 to get it repaired. It's not really made to be a serviceable unit.
One of the big demarcation points between what I call vintage gear and the newer-generation stuff [is] serviceability. If you're to look inside a typical home-theater receiver, it's layer upon layer of service boards, all packed very tightly. It's impossible to take it apart to test it. Whereas a vintage receiver is all two-sided — [manufacturers] designed them to be serviced. They did that not even realizing that their equipment was still going to be in service 40 years later.
Thankfully, the recycling laws are coming into effect. You can't landfill any electronics; they all have to be recycled [in Vermont]. What that comes back to, though, is the true cost of ownership and manufacturing for a [nonserviceable] piece.
SD: When someone brings you a piece to repair, what do you do?
GB: The first thing I ask them is, what symptoms are they having? I hear the same things over and over again. A lot of the equipment is older; there are certain things that happen to just about every [piece] that needs attention. Usually it comes down to cleaning-related [problems].
I'll work my way through and figure out what the source of the problem is. That usually involves taking it apart, doing some probing and testing. I've done it enough that I can do a lot by feel; I'll manipulate the switches, and if I touch this switch and the sound cuts out, that'll usually tell me that the switch needs to be cleaned. If they have more serious things, like if they said smoke came out of it, I take those clues to give me direction to where to check next. It's kind of like a logic tree of diagnosing problems.
I'll see a lot of the same problems with specific brands and models — for those kinds of things, I'll stock parts. Luckily, because of this resurgence in interest in older equipment, I'm starting to be able to get some of the older-style parts again. A lot of the parts are being made in China, but they're proving themselves. Needles — the stylus for a turntable — almost disappeared, but that's completely come back, and it's made it a lot easier. Parts are my biggest challenge. If this [particular] switch were completely broken, I might have to look for months to find a replacement.
SD: Where do you do that? EBay? Online forums? Silk Road [the now-shuttered online black market]?
GB: Yeah, eBay's great, and yeah.
SD: You've really used Silk Road for audio parts?
GB: Yes! Everywhere. If you knew what I've had to do to find parts... I was repairing a $7,000 amplifier [with components made specifically for it]. I got those [parts] from someone in China who owned one of those units. I had to connect the dots to find this individual — they're not a manufacturer. I had to figure out somebody who could translate a message for them — I tried to use Google Translate, but it needed to be really technical [language]. It wasn't cheap, but the amplifier wasn't cheap.